AIDS Walk at 30 Years: A Long and Winding Road

Co-authored by Kelsey Louie

Thirty years ago, New Yorkers took their first step together for what would become an annual spring tradition: AIDS Walk New York. Today, thanks to advances in medicine, AIDS is no longer a death sentence and life expectancy can be normal for many living with HIV. And now more than ever, the science tells us it's possible find a cure for HIV in our lifetimes.

While this progress is critical, there is more work to be done. HIV infection rates in the U.S. are still high--50,000 new cases in the U.S. per year--and the impact of HIV on vulnerable populations is as severe as ever. Young people are being infected at a rate that has grown at an astonishing 133 percent over the last decade.

Even with effective antiretrovirals, the rate of new HIV infections is far outpacing our ability to provide treatment, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, which accounts for almost 70% of the global count of 2.1 million new HIV infections, including nearly 240,000 children. And children are disproportionately bearing the burden of poor drug delivery systems. In 2013, less than 1 in 4 children living with HIV in developing countries had access to antiretroviral drugs, compared to 1 in 3 adults.

Access isn't the only treatment barrier. Adherence and cost are issues too. Cutting edge drug technology has reduced some HIV regimens to a once daily pill, but many HIV meds still have complicated dosage requirements that can be difficult for patients to follow. Drug advancements haven't brought down prices either. Currently, the lifetime treatment cost of an HIV infection is estimated to be over $408,000 in 2014 dollars--an unthinkable sum to most people in the world.

Still, treatment and prevention remain our best strategies so far for fighting the epidemic. And here in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo is embracing treatment as prevention. Last month, the Governor received the final recommendations from GMHC and other members of the End AIDS Task Force to support our goal of reducing the number of new infections in New York State from 3,000 to just 750 annually by 2020. It's an ambitious but achievable goal that will be met by getting more people on anti-HIV therapy to maximize viral suppression, as well as through the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV-negative people to help keep them virus-free.

This plan will cost money. Ten million dollars has been allocated by the New York State legislature, but that's only a small down payment for what will be required. And that doesn't even scratch the surface of the investment to achieve the holy grail of HIV research--the vaccine and cure ultimately required to end AIDS once and for all.

Cure research has a new impetus in the scientific community with the first known instance of an HIV cure in an individual, Timothy Ray Brown. The private sector is beginning to respond, too. Just this week, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline announced a new partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill aimed at an AIDS cure. And earlier this year, the nonprofit American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) announced a plan to invest $100 million in cure research over the next six years.

Government must follow suit. The plan by the White House to direct $100 million to cure research is a good start, but experts think billions, not millions, are required. States like New York and California could help by utilizing their bonding authority to fund cure research.

As thousands march on May 17th in the 30th anniversary AIDS Walk New York, we should have a spring in our step. The road towards finding a cure for HIV is long and winding, but the end is in sight.

Brad Hoylman is a State Senator for New York's 27th District and Kelsey Louie is the CEO of Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC)